Today's Topics in AgBioView.
* Folklore vs. Scientific Lore
* Antibodies on the Cob
* Engineering Plants to Detoxify Explosives
* Case for GM Crops with a Poverty Focus
* New Tests Aimed at Biotech Crops
* Lesson from the Illegal Bt Cotton in India *
* Bt in Bt Cotton means Blocking the seed, Trashing the fact
* Pesticide Lobby Blamed for Order on Bt Cotton (in India)
* Navbharat Registered Seeds as Hybrid Research Variety
* Government Departments Differ on Gujarat Bt Cotton Row
* Seeds of Discontent: Controlling Crop Germplasm
Folklore vs. Scientific Lore
- Irena Chalmers
AgBioView, October 27, 2001. http://www.agbioworld.org/
The fairy tales we are told as children remain deep in our subconscious. They are not lost, nor are they entirely forgotten. They remain a source of enchantment.
I’m sure you will remember the stories about Hansel and Gretel (and the Wicked Witch) and Little Red Riding Hood (and the Big Bad Wolf) and Snow White (and the Poisoned Apple.) Three food themes run through these, and many other myths and fables. There is the fear there won’t be enough to eat. There is the fear we will be tricked out of the food we have (by the Big Bad Wolf.) And the fear we will be poisoned.
These are the same fears that threaten to overtake the debate about food biotechnology…
Our fascination with Jack and the Beanstalk is paralleled by our enthrallment with the British royal family in general and the love life of Prince Charles in particular who ends up, (like the heroes in all the best fairy tales,) with the hand in marriage of a golden-haired princess and some pretty terrific real estate.
Prince Charles is a leader of the Organic Crusade in Britain. He says: - "I believe that we have now reached a moral and ethical watershed beyond which we venture into realms that belong to God, and to God alone."
When Eve ate the apple, she took a symbolic bite from the tree of knowledge and in so doing she was accused of playing God. As you will have observed this idea of playing God — or Buddha or Allah — is most definitely not allowed.
Prince Charles also asks - "What actual right do we have to experiment, Frankenstein-like, with the very stuff of life?"
The most ardent opponents of food and agricultural biotechnology have adopted the image of Frankenstein as their mascot. They rant about Frankenfood as though biotechnology exists only in the reincarnation of a terrifying fictional monster that was created by a fictional medical student in a book of fiction that was written 150 years ago.
As you see the roots of myths and fables and even mysticism and superstition run very deep indeed.
In the fable that is being written in today’s newspaper headlines, Greenpeace would like to lay claim to the mantle of goodness and purity pitted against power and corruption. They claim to be protectors of the planet and guardians against the unnatural. Despite its income last year of $146 million — the group portrays itself as the underdog. They want us to think they are just like the little people we read about in Gulliver’s travels and the story of David and Goliath. Greenpeace and its pals are ardent opponents of biotechnology.
Whether the hero of a legend is Greenpeace or Prince Charles or Ulysses or Luke Skywalker or James Bond or Superman or Harry Potter, he is invariably pitted against a beastly being who possesses a magic potion (like krypton or anthrax) designed to harm the innocent.
We all love tales about frogs turning into princes and swans and lakes and Dr. Drosselmeyer and his magic nutcracker, but even allowing for the fact that our hearts and minds are stuffed full with all this fantasy it is almost beyond belief that in the new morality play of make-believe the storybook role of the Big Bad Wolf in partnership with Darth Vader has been assigned to the biotechnology industry and its many thousands of dedicated scientists armed with Ph. D’s and several Nobel Prizes.
Some people believe plant breeders and farmers are secretly plotting to take over the world, kill the monarch butterflies, recreate Alfred Hitchcock super bugs and super weeds, poison all creatures great and small and accumulate untold wealth in the process.
How diabolical. How dastardly. How absurd.
The truth is agricultural biotechnology promises to bring safe, rigorously tested crops that require fewer pesticides or fertilizers yet yield more per acre. Crops that can withstand freezing temperatures and strong winds, that thrive in drought conditions and when planted in poor, depleted soil. Fruits and vegetables that last longer, taste better and are more nutritious. Corn with as much protein as cow’s milk.
Bananas grown with life-saving vaccines and rice with vitamins that can go a long way to prevent blindness in little children. This single accomplishment of genetic engineering could alleviate more suffering and illness than any medicine has done in the history of the world.
In the intervening years since Adam and Eve are said to have been residing, (naked, naturally,) in the Garden of Eden, we have pooled the accumulated wisdom of biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, and mathematics and computer sciences in order to understand the genomes of humans and plants.
Protesters say it isn’t natural. They are quite right — but neither is in-vitro fertilization or poodles. Do they think poodles just walked out of the ancient forest?
Like Mother Nature, the terms “natural” and “organic have become powerful buzzwords. Many believe, wrongly as it turns out, that organic foods are more nutritious and better for the environment than fruits and vegetables that are grown in so-called factory farms. There is nothing to substantiate this idea.
The greatest obstacle to the whole truth and nothing but… is not the intentional falsehood, but rather the innuendo and the enduring myth. Fact-free speculation and a lot of splashing around in the shallow-end of the gene pool have led to a heap of misunderstandings.
If we are to address the needs of the growing population on a decreasing area of arable land we will need to use all the tools that we can lay our hands on. Biotechnology is just one item in the agronomic tool kit. Tools are not threats. They are things to use. Biotechnology must be positioned alongside conventional breeding programs, integrated pest management programs, practices aimed at reducing soil erosion and (believe it or not) biotechnology will need to be deployed alongside organic farming, with which it is compatible (scientifically, if not politically)
At the conclusion of the O.J. Simpson trial, Johnny Cochran, the Council for the Defense asked the wrong question. He didn’t ask the jury: - "Is this man guilty?" He asked if they believed there was serious hanky panky going on the LAPD? We too must ask the right question… which is, NOT do locally grown, organic fruits and vegetables picked at the peak of season taste good? Of course they do. The right question to ask ourselves is, "When we have the tools to alleviate hunger and suffering is it morally and ethically right NOT to use them?"
Antibodies on the Cob
- Claire Ainsworth, New Scientist 06 Oct 2001
Vast fields of maize could soon be churning out antibodies for preventing sexually transmitted diseases. Researchers at Epicyte, a biotech company in San Diego, say their technology promises to make the mass production of therapeutic antibodies easier and cheaper. At the moment, therapeutic antibodies are produced using hamster ovary cells--an expensive method that produces limited amounts. But Epicyte's new "plantibody" technology allows the DNA that codes for antibodies to be introduced into crop plants such as maize. The antibodies are only produced in the maize kernels, making it easy to extract them using current maize-processing methods.
Epicyte is already well on the way to producing an antibody to prevent herpes infection, says Andrew Hiatt, who helped develop the technology. The antibody, HX8, works by sticking to the virus and blocking its entry into cells, and has proved highly effective in animal tests. Although condoms provide some protection against herpes infection, they are not 100 per cent reliable. But HX8 can provide protection in the vagina for 24 hours. Epicyte is also developing antibodies that block HIV transmission and the virus that causes genital warts.
The HX8 genes have already been transferred into maize, and Epicyte plans to start clinical trials of the antibody next year. Hiatt hopes plantibodies will be cheap enough for consumers to buy them over the counter. "That's the ultimate goal," he says.
Engineering Plants for the Phytodetoxification of Explosives
- Rosser SJ; French CE; Bruce NC MAY-JUN 2001 In Vitro Cellular & Developmental Biology-plant, 37: (3) 330-333 (Univ Cambridge, Inst Biotechnol, Cambridge CB2 1QT, England.)
Abstract: Widespread contamination of the environment by explosives resulting from the manufacture, disposal and testing of munitions is becoming a matter of increasing concern. Most explosives are considered to be a major hazard to biological systems due to their toxic and mutagenic effects. Interest on the bioremediation of land contaminated with explosives has recently been focused on phytoremediation. Unfortunately, whilst plants have many advantages for the remediation of contaminated land and water, they lack the catabolic versatility which enables microorganisms to mineralize such a wide diversity of xenobiotic compounds. This raised the interesting question as to whether the impressive biodegradative capabilities of soil bacteria could be combined with the high biomass and stability of plants to yield an optimal system for in situ bioremediation of explosive residues in soil.
Our investigation into the degradation of explosive residues by soil bacteria resulted in the isolation of Enterobacter cloacae PB2, which is capable of utilizing nitrate ester explosives such as pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) and nitroglycerin as the sole source of nitrogen for growth. We have successfully introduced PETN reductase, the enzyme initiating explosive degradation in this organism, into plants to create transgenic plants that degrade explosives. Since the bacterial degradative pathways for many classes of organic pollutant have been elucidated, this may be a generally applicable method of achieving bioremediation of contaminated soil in the environment.
The Case for Genetically Modified Crops with a Poverty Focus
- Howard J. Atkinson, Jayne Green, Sue Cowgill and Aurora Levesley; Trends in Biotechnology, 2001, 19:3:91-96 http://journals.bmn.com/
Abstract: Recently seven National Academies of Science produced a report on transgenic plants and world agriculture. The report provides scientific perspectives to the ongoing public debate about the potential role for transgenic technology in world agriculture. In this article, we develop the themes of the report and emphasize the potential for future genetically modified (GM) crops with a poverty focus, emphasizing the potential of GM resistance to plant parasitic nematodes for subsistence potato farmers in Bolivia. We judge that a range of incremental gains to crop yields from many transgenes are valuable for future world security. We advocate the establishment of a standard that GM crops must achieve before they are both biosafe and appropriate for resource-poor farmers and we believe that the best interests of the poor require biotechnologists to work towards that objective.
New Tests Aimed at Biotech Crops
- Willie Vogt, Farm Progress 10/10/2001 http://www.directag.com/directag/images/clear.gif
A key part of the management of biotech crops is testing for specific products in batches of grain. Two companies have announced the introduction of new products this week that will allow elevators and other steps along the trade channel to test for specific products. Strategic Diagnostics Inc. (SDI) now has a simple strip test for the presence of Roundup Ready corn. The test can detect the NK603 genetics and the company claims it will pick up a positive kernel out of 200 negative kernels. That's a .5% accuracy, which is below many currently proposed 1% standards for biotech-free labels.
Roundup Ready corn is currently approved for sale in the United States, Japan and several other key corn markets, however the product has not been approved for sale to Europe. This test allows businesses that export to Europe to test for the corn before shipment. "With this product, our customers will have the full complement of testing tools they need going into this year's harvest," notes Richard Birkmeyer, president and CEO of SDI. The company already produces quick tests for Roundup Ready soybeans under the Trait Check name and offers such products as GMO QuickCheck and GMO Check.
Neogen, an SDI competitor, has announced the availability for a quick check to detect the presence of StarLink biotech corn. This controversial product, which was pulled from the market before the 2001 planting season, has not been approved for food use. The company's Agri-Screen for Cry9C Strip Test uses a simple dipstick and requires only water and 10 minutes or less to detect one positive kernel among 800 negative kernels, according to the company. That's an accuracy level of .125%. The company's performance claims have been verified by USDA's Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA).
'Indian Illegal Bt Cotton: Lessons'
>From Prakash: Following are latest reports on the issue of illegal Bt cotton growing in India. The incident, while deplorable, shows ironically how the tide has turned in favour of biotechnology in India. The dam has finally been breached.
Myths about 'Third World' farmers not willing to pay more for biotech seeds have been exposed along with the vested interests of the pesticide lobby in opposing biotech and the inept bureaucracy of the government. I have learnt that Indian farmers paid Rs 50 (~ $1.10) per kilogram for the illegal Bt cotton seed against Rs 6-8 ( $0.15) per kg for the traditional variety!
'Bt in Bt Cotton means Blocking the seed, Trashing the fact'
- Sonu Jain, Indian Express, October 27, 2001 (Forwarded by Barun Mitra )
'How a few bureaucrats pushed the scientists and their findings aside to block the approval of a safe and superior seed˜and sowed a bumper mess'
NEW DELHI: It couldn't get worse. About 5,000 acres of a bumper cotton crop in Gujarat will now be set on fire. Farmers‚ groups have threatened protests, the Government has promised compensation but no one knows where the crores will come from. All because the Government is stalling the introduction of Bt Cotton despite its own trials establishing that the seed is safe and superior.
Department of Biotechnology (DBT) Secretary Manju Sharma keeps saying that there is absolutely no problem‚‚ with Bt Cotton. Then why the delay? And who should be held accountable? Some answers to these questions lie in the minutes of a closed-door meeting held on June 19, 2001 a copy of which is with The Indian Express in which 18 bureaucrats and scientists met to decide on Bt Cotton.
These records make it clear that those who pushed hard for clearance were in a minority: P K Ghosh, advisor, department of biotechnology, the man who led the team that conducted the tests; Sushil Kumar, director, Central Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants and R P Sharma who heads the Biotechnology Centre, Indian Agricultural Research Institute.
What the farmers have lost, as per Govt‚s own figures: As the 3rd largest cotton producer in the world, India has 9 million hectares under cotton. National average yield of cotton is 200-300 kg per hectare. The Chinese average with Bt cotton is 943 kg per hectare. According to DBT figures, Bt trials show that average yield went up by 297 kg per hectare. Each hectare was saving Rs 1,856 in pesticide alone. Given that market price is Rs 22 per kg, benefit per hectare was Rs 6,534. Multiply this by 9 million hectares to get an estimate of what the delay has cost.
Some sat on the fence like AK Bhatnagar of Delhi University's Botany Department and Subhash Chander from the Centre for Biochemical Engineering at IIT Delhi. They were satisfied with the trials but argued for more caution.
And four members blocked the approval.
Mangla Rai, deputy director general, Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR).
His argument: Bt Cotton kills the bollworm pest, the most common pest affecting cotton, but couldn't bollworm attack other crops as well?
As for the test results which cleared Bt Cotton, Rai argued that cotton is sown in June while the tests were done in August-September last year when pest load was low. "Further field trials with timely sowing will provide a more comprehensive picture" he said. This objection was echoed by A M Gokhale, chief of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, as well.
Facts: Scientists at the meeting, including Sushil Kumar, director, Central Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants, argued that if the pest load was low the non-Bt cotton crop sown at the same time should also have shown a better yield which it didn't. As for the fear that Bt Cotton could trigger a more resistant strain of bollworm that might affect other crops, scientists said that a pest management strategy could easily solve that problem. For example, in the US, the Bt gene that destroys bollworm is introduced simultaneously in cotton, corn and other crops.
RCA Jain, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture: Citing legal and sociological implications, he claimed that many questions regarding the development of Bt cotton had been left unanswered. However, he did not specify what these questions were. All he said was that we should not hurry.
Fact: Jain's fears have all been addressed by a DBT research team which carried out the trials and cleared Bt Cotton on all counts.
KC Jain, assistant director general, ICAR: He claimed that human safety issues have not been considered.‚‚ Cotton seed oil, he said, is used in manufacturing vanaspati which in turn is used in manufacturing a number of food products in the country. Impact of cotton seed oil derived from (Bt Cotton) on humans has not been studied.
Fact: Countered P K Ghosh, advisor, department of biotechnology: Crushed Bt cotton seeds were fed to adult lab animals, goats, cows, buffaloes, chicken and fish and they did not show any difference between Bt seed-fed animals and non-Bt fed controls.
RCA Jain, who is currently overseas, was not available for comment. KC Jain declined to comment and Rai, when contacted, said: The trials have to be conducted again because we have to be extra cautious.
Pesticide Lobby Blamed for Order on Bt Cotton (in India)
- The Times of India, October 26, 2001
GANDHINAGAR: Gujarat's agriculture minister Purshottam Rupala has blamed the country's powerful pesticides lobby for pressurising the Centre to order destruction of the genetically-engineered cotton crop sown on thousands of acres of land in the state.
"The pesticide firms have a Rs 800 crore (~ US$ 20 Million) business in Gujarat, highest anywhere in the country," Rupala told 'Times News Network'. "It is the pesticides lobby alone which stands to lose business if the genetically- engineered cotton seeds are used by the state's farmers," he said. Citing several experts' reports, Rupala said, "The cotton farmers in the state have found that pests do not infest the new variety crop at all."
Pointing out that the cotton crop from the traditional seeds has been "badly infested" this year, Rupala said, "The pest dies a slow death if it tries to sit on the leaves of the genetically-engineered cotton crop." He added, "The new genetically-engineered seed is much like the traditional seed with certain properties that make the pesticides unnecessary. It has been developed after a lot of research and its success is proven worldwide."
The seeds were used last year in Gujarat but none noticed it as a lot of crop got destroyed due to the drought conditions, Rupala said. "Information that I have gathered shows that nearly 50 per cent of the crop in the US for the last four years is produced from the same seed. There is little reason for us, therefore, to take the Centre's advise to burn it." Why did the Centre make such a big issue out of it when 25 other institutes were working on the genetically modified cotton, all financed by the Central government, he said.
However, Rupala said: "The firm that produced the seed went ahead distributing it for business considerations without realising the need to take necessary permissions. It should have followed the proper procedure. One should follow the procedures well... Otherwise, some day some harmful seeds might play a major havoc in the state. That might be dangerous for the farmers."
He said the Centre would be asked to pay full compensation to the farmers if it insisted on burning it. The compensation would come to about Rs 25 crore.
Navbharat Registered Seeds as Hybrid Research Variety
- The Economic Times , October 26, 2001
Even as the fate of thousands of hectares of genetically modified cotton crop across Gujarat remains uncertain, the state government has found that Navbharat Seeds, the firm which allegedly sold the transgenic seeds, had registered the seeds as a hybrid research variety.
Sources in the government told 'The Economic Times' that the firm had concealed the fact from the government and had registered the seeds as 'Navbharat 151'. For this, the state government is planning to initiate action against the firm under the Seeds Act and Seeds Control Regulations. "We are trying to ascertain the nature of action that could be taken against the firm," an officer said.
Meanwhile, a survey conducted by the agriculture department has revealed the widespread use of the transgenic seeds. It has come to light that the genetically improved cotton is standing on some 11,000 acres, most of which is in Surat, Bharuch, Baroda and Kutch districts. In all, the transgenic seed has been found to have been used in 19 districts. While the issue is getting more complicated, the farmer lobby has opposed any move to destroy the crop, as directed by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, which falls under the Union ministry of forest and environment. Even if the farmers agree to let their crop be destroyed, the tricky question is who will bear the compensation cost. Besides, who will decide the compensation amount that will be acceptable to the farmers, who find themselves caught up in the row.
The seeds company proprietor has failed to even appear before the GEAC so far. The issue will be taken up again during the GEAC meeting which is scheduled to be held on October 31. A GEAC team had confirmed that Bt gene had been detected in cotton crop in some areas.
Government Departments Differ on Gujarat Bt Cotton Row
- The Economic Times , October 26, 2001
Even as the controversy over illegally grown Bt cotton in Gujarat rages on, there is another storm brewing with interested ministries taking contradictory stands on how to handle it. Today, department of biotechnology secretary Manju Sharma spoke strongly in favour of "protecting" the interests of farmers.
What is interesting though is that she was not talking compensation (that, she said was an issue for the state government to worry about) and added in the same breath that Bt. cotton with Cry1Ac gene was "perfectly safe." However the ministry of agriculture is clear that with India being free from transgenic crops, there was no other option but to destroy the cotton crops in Gujarat.
Speaking to 'The Economic Times', agriculture commissioner C R Hazra, said that if harvest was allowed, it would set a very bad precedent, robbing the law of all sanctity. He expressed fear that the seeds had already found their way to Punjab and Haryana as well. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee - an inter-ministerial group - was the only body authorised to allow cultivation and take action, he pointed out. It may be noted that GEAC, which had decided, just months ago, to disallow cultivation of Bt cotton on the ground that further field trials were needed, has a representative of DBT on board.
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the inauguration of the National Facility for Virus Diagnosis and Quality Control and National Containment-cum-Quarantine Facility for Transgenic Planting Material, Dr Sharma said discussions were on to resolve the issue and that the farmers interests would given priority. Asked if the Bt-cotton cultivated across thousands of hectares of land in Gujarat would not be destroyed as per the Genetic Engineering Approval Committees directions, she declined to disclose the outcome of on-going discussions.
Dr Sharma was however very vocal on the "safety" of Mahycos Bt cotton (the genetically modified strain with Cry1Ac gene for which US-based Monsanto holds a patent and has licensed to Mahyco in India). She said that it had been proved beyond doubt that the genetically improved cotton being grown across thousands of acres of land globally improved yield by more than 35 per cent and was resistant to the dreaded bollworm pest.
Seeds of Discontent
'Plant Breeders, Developing Nations, and Agricultural Firms Battle For Control of The World's Stock Of Crop Diversity'
- Daniel Charles, Science, Oct 26, 2001; Vol 294, No 5543, pp. 772-775
For the past 10 years, at a research compound outside Harare, Zimbabwe, Marianne Banziger has been painstakingly constructing corn plants that will thrive in drought-prone areas of southern Africa. Banziger, a breeder for the International Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT), collects pollen from the tassels of one plant, sprinkles it over the silk of another, and waits for another growing season to examine the results.
Earlier this year, CIMMYT announced that Banziger's decade of labor had paid off: She had created several new lines of corn, or maize, dubbed "Grace" and "Zm521," that exhibit remarkable vigor even when afflicted by drought. In field trials conducted in South Africa, these varieties produced 30% to 50% more corn than traditional varieties grown by small farmers in the area. In the depleted soils of Zimbabwe's communal lands, the new varieties performed as well as the best commercial hybrids. CIMMYT, a publicly funded research institute with headquarters outside Mexico City, will now make Grace and Zm521 seeds available free of charge to seed distributors around the world--one more tool in the giant task of growing crops to feed the world.
But Grace and Zm521 are products of a system under threat. To create the new strains, Banziger drew on thousands of native varieties of corn from CIMMYT's extensive seed banks, which were built up through decades of free exchange with other seed banks around the globe. In recent years, however, many nations have invoked a 1993 international treaty on biodiversity to block access to their seed collections and prohibit export of "genetic resources," fearing that they might be giving away valuable property. As a result, CIMMYT and other international seed banks have found it increasingly difficult to add to their collections.
This breakdown of seed exchanges threatens the lifeblood of plant breeding, according to some observers--including some of the prime movers behind the 1993 biodiversity treaty. They fear that if breeders don't have free access to the planet's genetic diversity, they will be increasingly hampered in their efforts to develop crops that resist disease and pests, or that thrive under shifting climate. This is particularly worrisome for breeders in the developing world, such as Banziger, who rely on seed collections that are most directly threatened by moves to nationalize genetic resources.
To head off that threat, a new international treaty, drafted but not yet signed, attempts to revive international seed exchanges with financial incentives. Under the draft agreement, commercial seed companies that use samples from public seed banks to breed new privately owned varieties will have to pay royalties to a fund to be established under the auspices of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The proceeds would then go into a common fund to be distributed among member countries, probably to support seed banks and conservation projects. Nonprofit outfits like CIMMYT, which distribute varieties free of charge, would be exempt from paying royalties. Some important disputes remain to be resolved, but the treaty--formally known as the revised International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources--is scheduled for signing at a high-level meeting at the FAO set for 2 to 13 November in Rome.
Surprisingly, seed companies and the biotechnology industry appear to be taking the proposed treaty in stride, while scientists in charge of gene banks are distinctly unenthused. Seed companies are accustomed to paying for the use of genes or plant varieties, notes Stephen Smith, a research fellow at Pioneer Hi-Bred International in Des Moines, Iowa. Perhaps, he says, the prospect of future profits may even induce gene banks to uncover hidden treasures within their own collections. For the seed banks, however, the system could be a logistical headache. "We're having trouble imagining, from a practical point of view, how this [tracking seed use] would work," says Peter Bretting, a manager of gene banks operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). And there is also "a sense of sadness" among gene bank administrators, says one government official. "For 4 decades now, the U.S. has stood by a philosophy of open access. And they are seeing that system [being] shut down or changed."
Smashing rocks together: The genealogy of Banziger's maize varieties shows how free exchanges work. The ancestors of Grace and Zm521 were "landraces," or traditional varieties of corn grown by farmers in the Latin American countryside. Some landraces had originally been collected by CIMMYT, some by Latin American research institutes, and some by U.S. researchers who deposited their collections in U.S. seed banks. Some seeds then found their way from the United States to Kenya and Egypt before they arrived at CIMMYT. Before Banziger ever started her work, CIMMYT's breeders had subjected the landraces to repeated cycles of inbreeding and selection. By thus concentrating particular genes within a population, breeders uncovered previously hidden genetic traits, in this case an ability to withstand drought. "The original landraces do not show the trait," Banziger says.
Banziger selected 50 breeding lines from among several thousand in CIMMYT's collection and set to work crossing the various lines in her test plots, shuffling and reshuffling the genetic combinations represented by each line of corn. The process, she says, "is like collecting big stones from all over the world. You smash them together to make small stones, and with that you make a mosaic." Ten years later, she had Grace and Zm521.
Similar stories can be told about the origins of any new variety of a major crop, whether created by research stations in Asia or profit-driven seed companies in Des Moines or St. Louis, and whether created solely by traditional breeding or in part by molecular genetic engineering. Every variant form of wheat, maize, or potato traces its lineage back to the genetic diversity found in an ancestral homeland. Soybeans came from China, potatoes from Latin America, sorghum from Africa, and so on.
North vs. South: In the 1990s, the system of free exchange began to unravel. Ironically, the roots of its downfall lie in a campaign begun by people who wanted to preserve it. Agricultural activists saw a threat to free exchange from private control over seeds and, specifically, from laws that allow companies to claim intellectual property rights over new plant varieties or the genes that they contain. These activists fought what they saw as exploitation of cash-poor but gene-rich developing nations by gene-hungry multinational corporations. Among the most prominent of the campaigners were Cary Fowler, Pat Mooney, and Hope Shand, co-founders of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a nonprofit based in Canada. "We were talking about these resources being the common heritage of humankind, our common responsibility," says Fowler.
Over the years, many Third World governments became persuaded that their fields and forests harbor genetic treasures, and many decided to claim those treasures for themselves. The international Convention on Biological Diversity, which entered into force in 1993, provided the legal framework: It declared that genetic resources--every rock and pebble in Banziger's mosaic--were subject to the control of the nations on whose territory these resources were found.
More than 50 nations have since enacted laws restricting the export of plants, seeds, and other biological materials from their forests or gene banks. First World seed banks have found it nearly impossible to collect additional plants or seeds from many foreign fields (see graph), according to USDA officials. Although some companies may be able to buy access to valuable collections, such restrictions could place useful seeds beyond the reach of nonprofit breeders such as Banziger.
This turn of events has placed the original critics of "biopiracy" in an awkward position. After spending most of his life railing against the evils of multinational corporations, Mooney of RAFI (which recently changed its name to the ETC Group) now finds himself condemning the legal walls that Third World governments are building around seed banks. "Forcing farmers and other researchers to reduce their options and [restrict] their access to diversity is irresponsible. It is the flip side of intellectual property monopoly and equally immoral," he wrote earlier this year.
Furthermore, those restrictions on seed transfers are likely to hurt developing countries most, notes Fowler, who left RAFI nearly a decade ago and now works as an adviser to the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) in Fiumicino, Italy. In collaboration with two other researchers at IPGRI, Fowler recently published data showing that agriculture in nearly all developing nations relies on crops that originated somewhere else. Africans, for instance, depend heavily on maize and cassava, both imported from abroad. New varieties of these crops will depend on genetic resources found originally in Latin America and Asia.
Moreover, says Fowler, genetic resources now flow mainly from "North" to "South" rather than the other way around. In one recent typical year, for every single seed sample that developing nations sent to international gene banks, those gene banks sent about 60 samples back. Farmers in poor nations now depend on seeds held by gene banks located in or funded by rich nations. For Fowler, the conclusion is obvious: If poor nations create a world in which they have to bargain for access to the genetic resources in these banks, they lose.
Out of the pot: In effect, such bargaining began during negotiations leading to the proposed treaty. The treaty attempts to break the logjam over seeds by creating a way for Third World nations to profit from the riches stored in the world's public seed banks, including the national seed banks of the United States and various European nations. It establishes a common pot of seeds that will be freely available to plant breeders, in exchange for royalties if the seeds are used to develop commercial varieties. For example, if a commercial seed company used seeds from Grace and Zm521 to breed new proprietary varieties, it then would have to pay royalties into the common fund. (Pharmaceutical and other nonfood uses are excluded.) This common pot, called the "multilateral system," currently contains seeds from about 30 of the world's major crops, including corn, wheat, rice, potatoes, bananas, and beans. All seeds from these crops in all the public databases of signatory countries would be included.
Soybeans, however, are not in that common pot, because China, the homeland of soybeans, objected to its inclusion. Latin American nations, meanwhile, refused to include tomatoes or groundnuts such as peanuts, and African nations kept a variety of tropical grasses off the list. In order to obtain samples of these crops from national gene banks, researchers will have to obtain special permission and perhaps buy access. Some predict that this will severely hamper efforts to develop better varieties of such crops, many of which get little attention from breeders anyway. "The implication is, they really think that they can make money by selling these genetic resources," says one European observer in apparent disbelief.
In reality, however, a Third World gene cartel isn't likely to squeeze much money from the agricultural seed industry. Unlike the pharmaceutical industry, seed companies generate relatively meager profits--less than half a billion dollars each year worldwide. In the case of some plants for which Third World nations might control unique genetic resources, such as tropical grasses, a commercial seed industry doesn't even exist.
During plenary sessions of the negotiations, excerpts of which were published on the Internet,* delegates spoke in high-minded tones about the need to include as many crops as possible in the multilateral system, in order to assure food security for the world's poor. In private, many delegates refused to give up control over genetic resources that they considered valuable. Two participants in one small negotiating session on the final day describe the following episode: Latin American delegates turned to their Asian colleagues and offered to include tomatoes, peanuts, and a few other crops in the common pot if Asia agreed to include soybeans, sugarcane, and oil palm. Asia's representatives refused. The Latin Americans then turned to Africa's representatives and offered to include their tropical legumes in exchange for the Africans' tropical grasses. The Africans declined.
Progress on the list of crops, suggested Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher of Ethiopia, one of the leading spokespersons for the developing nations, may depend on resolution of another sticky issue: the patenting of plant genes. African nations, in particular, have demanded a ban on the patenting of anything discovered within public seed banks. The United States, supported by Australia and Canada, agreed that patents shouldn't be allowed on plant varieties obtained from public gene banks; such varieties, they argued, wouldn't be patentable anyway under U.S. law. The United States and its allies adamantly refused, however, to ban patents on "genetic parts and components," referring to individual genes that might be isolated from the seeds and transferred to other species via genetic engineering.
This dispute will be taken up again in November, at the meeting where the treaty is supposed to be signed. "If they can fix 15 words, it'll happen," says one industry observer. It's also possible that most nations will go forward with the treaty, even without agreement from the United States.
If the treaty is signed, USDA's Bretting foresees big problems in implementing it. He says he has no idea how USDA's gene banks could track the use of their seeds in commercial products in order to collect royalties. When a particular sample of seeds leaves a public gene bank, it "goes into the gene pool and is crossed with a gazillion different things." Twenty years later, it could become one distant ancestor of a commercial product. "Who's going to track this?" Bretting asks.
Meanwhile, the thorny questions of how much the commercial seed companies will pay--and exactly how the common monies will be administered and distributed to member countries--have been left to the treaty's "governing body," which is yet to be created. During the negotiations, a group of African nations suggested that public gene banks might generate annual royalties of half a billion dollars or more. Industry representatives roll their eyes at such numbers and point out that this sum would exceed the current global profits of the commercial seed industry. A more realistic estimate of potential revenues, they say, might be a few million dollars, beginning a decade or more down the road. "The belief that there's gold in those hills just waiting to be extracted is really unfortunate," says Jeffrey Kushan, a lawyer with the Washington, D.C., office of Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & Murphy, which represents the U.S. Biotechnology Industry Organization. Because the governing body is supposed to operate by consensus
On one point, however, there seems to be unanimity: There's no going back to the informal practices of an earlier era. Whether justified by the Convention on Biological Diversity, national laws, or the new treaty, government controls over seed exchanges are now a fact of life. "The era of free exchange," says Stephen Smith of Pioneer Hi-Bred, "is gone."
Daniel Charles is the author of Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food, published this month. See the International Institute for Sustainable Development's coverage of the negotiations at http://www.iisd.ca/biodiv/ExCGRFA-6